Rest In Peace My Dear Friend Onukaba By @DeleMomodu
Fellow Nigerians, as for me and my house, no news could be bigger and sadder than the gory death of my dear friend and brother, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo. This has been a week of major events but none touched me as mightily as that of Onukaba, one of Nigeria’s finest journalists. Where and how do I begin to tell you about Onukaba?
I first encountered him on the pages of one of Nigeria’s greatest newspapers of all time, The Guardian. His name then was Shuaibu Ojo but he later changed to Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo. At the time, I read everything he wrote except those that escaped my attention. I was his devotee, to put it mildly. He was a pen god and many like me worshipped his writing prowess. He wrote with so much authority and maturity that made me assume he was an old man until I met him. There were many distinguished writers and reporters at The Guardian – Stanley Macebuh, Patrick Dele-Cole, Chinweizu, Olatunji Dare, Odia Ofeimun, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Sonala Olumhense, Greg Obong-Oshotse, Edwin Madunagu, Tunji Lardner Jnr, Seyi Olu Awofeso, Andy Akporugo, Amma Ogan, Tunde Thompson, Nduka Irabor, Eluem Emeka Izeze, Ben Tomoloju, Mitchell Obi, and others – but Onukaba stood out in his own right as a reporter and writer. The Guardian was home for literary giants and Onukaba was clearly one of them even though he was relatively younger than most. Any self-respecting writer therefore wanted to appear on The Guardiaan’s effervescent pages. I was one of such dreamers but didn’t know how to go about it.
Onukaba was God-sent. Our paths crossed by pure chance. I was managing Motel Royal Limited, a holiday resort in Ile-Ife owned by The Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II. Onukaba loved culture and came on several occasion to do stories on the Ife palace and its festivals. Olojo was the biggest cultural event in the traditional calendar of a town reputed to be the cradle of civilisation and`famous for its 401 deities. Onukaba was lodged as a guest of His Majesty at the hotel during one of such festivals at the time when I was managing the hotel. I recognised his famous name as soon as his registration was forwarded to my office. I sent word out that I would love to meet him as soon as he arrived.
Ours was a case of love at first sight. I found Onukaba to be my age mate. This was the first surprise. I was shocked to see that he was smaller if not shorter than his gangling pen. He must have wondered why I stared endlessly at him. He wouldn’t know or even imagine how much I respected his brains. As a budding writer, I craved his talents. We got talking and we realised we shared common interests, especially our love for the African Writers’ series. It was fashionable in those days to impress people with authors and books you’d read, not like these days when your bank statement is the easiest way to show off. Onukaba was stunned about my robust knowledge of African culture. I regaled him with tales of Ife idols. He was fascinated by my Bachelor’s degree in Yoruba from the then University of Ife as well as my plan to be the first graduate of Yoruba Studies ever to attempt a Master’s degree in Literature-in-English.
Onukaba encouraged me to write a piece on the popular Olojo Festival for the African Guardian magazine which was edited by Nduka Irabor. I co-authored the essay with Kwesi Sampson and Onukaba was our courier to Lagos. A few weeks later, the article was published by the magazine. It was the biggest thing to happen to me personally and I was on top of the world. I bought copies and showed to anyone who cared to listen to me. Being published in any of The Guardian titles was a big deal to everyone at the time, and I was no exception.
Onukaba encouraged me to write more. Through him and the inspiration of Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, I started contributing as regularly as possible to the op-ed page. Dr Ogunbiyi was a lecturer from the Dramatic Arts Department at the University of Ife but later served his sabbatical at The Guardian and rose to become a Director at Rutam House, Lagos. I was paid N25 per article and always waited to publish four essays before travelling from Ife where I was now a post-graduate student to Lagos to receive the princely sum of N100. Trust me, it was a lot of money to an indigent student like me and it came in handy on several occasions. The Naira had great value in those days.
I remember my first article in The Guardian titled, ‘The Politics of Language’. It was a defence of Ngugi wa Thiong’o when he decided to stop writing in English language and chose his Kikuyu language and Odia Ofeimun was miffed about the decision. Of course, Ofeimun fired back thunderously at me to attack what he called my jejune thesis. This was how I got initiated into that exalted company of writers in Lagos. I kept writing for The Guardian and was also appearing in the Sunday Tribune at the introduction of my best friend Adedamola Aderemi, the Prince of Ile-Ife because of his conjugal ties to the Awolowo family. The Sunday Tribune had a fantastic Editor in Mr Folu Olamiti who did everything to encourage me. Onukaba followed my trajectory with keen interest. He rhapsodised about how beautifully I wrote.
Despite being able to establish myself as a writer, my real love was teaching. My ambition was to be a teacher, marry a teacher and live happily ever thereafter. But man proposes and God disposes. I searched and scratched everywhere for a teaching job but there was none anywhere. In frustration, I became exasperated. All my friends had jobs except me. And I was dying in silence, almost going off my rockers. I met Onukaba in Lagos and he said he could introduce me to a few Editors but could not really promise anything. He asked if I was ready to migrate to Lagos and my response was an instant yes.